Sunday, March 23, 2014

Nothing Gold Can Stay

"Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay."

I often think of this poem by Robert Frost when walking around the Gardens. Everywhere there is life and beauty because the Gardens are very well kept by our staff. It is interesting to note that for a garden to be "well kept" it is almost a requirement that what is decaying or dead be removed or at least hidden. And yet, even in the best-kept gardens, there is no lack of death and decay, and cracks can be found in the facade of beauty if only one looks for them, which not many care to do. Why is it that our culture's sense of aesthetics largely excludes death and decay from what is considered "beautiful"? Perhaps it's because these sights serve as uncomfortable reminders that "nothing gold can stay."

Although I do love landscapes and gardens filled with only blooms and life, it seems like something of a lie: death doesn't really exist - the world is perpetually in a state of youthful beauty and vigor. When we look at a flower in full bloom, we are enraptured by it and our spirits soar, and may even be filled with a deep longing. Perhaps there is an unconscious reason why we love to surround ourselves with flowers in bloom - that we might convince ourselves that our life will also be only bloom, with no decay or death; that these things don't really exist.

Yet these very flowers serve as one of the most poignant examples of the transitoriness of every living thing on earth precisely because their extreme beauty gives way to almost unthinkable ugliness in such a short span of time. We would, of course, love to believe that flowers only go from bud to bloom and then bloom in perpetuity. Notice how flower bouquets are usually discarded as soon as the decay begins; we don't want to see that. I doubt most people have ever even intently looked upon a flower that has fully died!

For those who are willing to look these phenomena of decay and death straight in the eye, the hibiscus provides great opportunities for reflection. One can watch the buds develop as their beautiful colors flush into the exposed petals, which then open into full bloom for only a single glorious day. Afterwards, the flowers quickly and quietly fade and do not remain long on the plant, falling off to make way for tomorrow's beauties, which easily make you forget about the ones that came before - you will not bother looking for them underneath the leaves, where they are decaying upon the ground; a forgotten, contorted shadow of yesterday's magnificent beauty. Here is a sequence of photographs chronicling the typical life of a hibiscus flower over the course of about a week:

But if we do decide to push back the leaves of the hibiscus bushes to find the unsightly figures of yesterday's beauty, undoubtedly we will feel a corresponding tinge of revulsion perceptible within ourselves, as if our mind can't stand to face the truth of what such beauty has become, and what we ourselves will one day soon become. Indeed, each of our physical bodies is a flower. Look in the media today - youth is glorified in the same way flowers are glorified in display gardens. But what happens to those youthful "flowers" once they've passed their prime? Our culture seems to do the same as a display gardener would - keep them away from sight so as not to upset our pleasant fantasy of being forever young and beautiful. We can, however, find these flowers of yesterday if we but seek them out, beyond the movie screens and magazines. Here are only a couple examples among countless others:

Arnold Schwarzenegger, 4-time Mr. Universe and 7-time Mr. Olympia.


Ursula Andress, the original Bond girl in the first James Bond Movie - Dr. No.

Flowers teach us the way of natural physical life on earth - youth, beauty, and vigor give way to decay, ugliness, and death. Try as we might, we will all reach the same end; we will all "subside" like the flowers of spring or the leaves of autumn, as Frost observes. And yet, we find a strange principle within the human species that seems to suggest an exception to Frost's "golden" rule. While our bodies follow the same path as nature's flowers, the spirit that animates our bodies can actually become more beautiful with age until the day we die. What then is this that has the potential to proceed ever forward mockingly in the face of inevitable physical decay and death? Simply, it is love, and all the noble qualities contained therein. If we are fortunate enough, we may arrive to the point of death enlivened by this triumph of love, when our spirit can say with Paul of Tarsus "Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?"

After our bodies die, what happens to the spirits that animate them cannot be proven for certain one way or another, but perhaps well-kept gardens full of life, vigor, and beautiful flowers are not, as postulated above, intuitively created and appreciated so much out of an unconscious attempt to remove anything hinting of our inevitable decay and death. Perhaps they come from the sprouting of a deeply-seeded knowledge and hope inside that decay and death are not meant to be our end, but rather a passage into a perpetual springtime, of which our well-kept gardens and our capacity for ever-growing love within ourselves in spite of physical decay are only signs.

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director

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